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Updated 06/23/2008

Cold War Pawn: Honduras in the 1980s


In the 1980s, the United States co-opted Honduran territory as the staging ground for its Cold War battles in Central America. In the neighboring countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, civil conflicts were raging and the United States saw a communist threat. Located at the center of this battleground, Honduras did the bidding of the United States and became deeply enmeshed in the conflicts of its neighbors. It also adopted a U.S.-promoted policy of protecting national security by stamping out perceived insurgent or subversive threats within its own borders—a policy that led to the torture and disappearance of hundreds of civilians. 

Some 15,000 Nicaraguan Contras operated from clandestine bases in Honduras, the best-known of which is El Aguacate. Financed, equipped and trained by the United States, the Contras crossed the border into Nicaragua to attack and try to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. The United States also built and staffed the Centro Regional Entrenamiento Militar (Regional Military Training Center), where Salvadoran and Guatemalan soldiers came for courses in counterinsurgency techniques for fighting the guerrilla movements in their countries.

In addition, the United States constructed airbases in Honduras, the largest of which was Palmerola, and U.S. troops came to Honduras by the thousands to participate in numerous training exercises. Military aid to Honduras jumped dramatically from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million in 1984.

Between 1980 and 1984 the United States promoted the application of its national security doctrine within Honduras. Under this doctrine, prevalent during the Cold War, security forces were to focus not on external threats but on potential internal subversion. Priority was placed on rooting out dissent—often without regard for the human rights of individuals targeted as potential subversives. According to former Honduran human rights commissioner Leo Valladares, the national security doctrine provided the framework for “a dirty war against anything and anyone considered subversive.”

The U.S. government also persuaded the Honduran military to institute a constitutional democracy and to turn over government control to civilian leaders. The first civilian president, a medical doctor named Roberto Suazo Córdova, held office from 1982 to 1986. While at the helm, Suazo Córdova gave democratic government endorsement to Washington policies and took a backseat to the Honduran military, essentially serving as president in name only. 

Thus, the institution of the civilian presidency served as a fig leaf that skimpily covered up the fact that the military retained control of Honduran society. For the rest of the decade, the administrations of Suazo Córdoba and his civilian successors rigorously and systematically applied the national security doctrine within Honduras. The military controlled all aspects of Honduras’ internal security, including command of the national police force. 

Honduras’ strongest proponent of the national security doctrine and the power behind the president was the ultraconservative Gen. Gustavo Adolfo Alvarez Martínez. His leadership as commander-in-chief of the Honduran Armed Forces from April 1982 until March 1984, when he was ousted in an internal military coup, initiated a period of cruel human rights violations that was unprecedented in the national history of Honduras.

At least 200 supposed civilian subversives—including students, peasant and labor leaders, and progressive religious figures—were tortured or “disappeared” and killed in Honduras in the 1980s under the guise of “national security.”

A 1961 graduate of the Argentine Military Academy, Alvarez Martínez applied the highly repressive tactics of Argentina’s failed “dirty war.” At his invitation, Argentine military advisors came to Honduras and espoused tactics that included surveillance, infiltration, kidnapping, clandestine detention centers, torture and summary executions by government-sanctioned death squads and secret military units. 

Monitoring and acting against domestic subversion was initially the responsibility of the Public Security Force (FUSEP, Fuerza de Seguridad Pública), the police branch of the Honduran armed forces. Within FUSEP, a secret counterintelligence unit dubbed the “Special Unit” provided technical support for arms interdiction between Nicaragua and El Salvador, while the National Investigations Directorate (DNI, Dirección Nacional de Investigaciones) served as the investigative division. 

Another secret unit, a rightist paramilitary organization maintained by the DNI and known as the Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army (ELACH, Ejército de Liberación Anti-comunista de Honduras), conducted operations against Honduran leftists and closely resembled a state-run death squad.

Along with the Special Unit, ELACH spearheaded the armed forces’ offensive against suspected subversives, but it operated outside of the official structure of the armed forces and outside of the control of civilian authorities.
A declassified CIA report indicates that “during the period ELACH operated (1980-1984), ELACH’s operations included surveillance, kidnappings, interrogation under duress, and the execution of prisoners who were Honduran revolutionaries.” 

Alvarez Martínez dismissed concerns about the legality and brutality of the tactics used by the units under his command and control, asserting that the alleged “disappeared” were probably in Cuba or Nicaragua receiving terrorism training. In fact, Alvarez Martínez outdid the United States with his anticommunist fervor. While still a colonel and head of FUSEP, Alvarez Martinez’s ideology and repressive tendencies became known to Washington. 

In a declassified State Department cable on a Feb. 6, 1981 meeting, then-U.S. Ambassador Jack Binns noted: “Alvarez stressed theme that democracies and ‘West’ are soft, perhaps too soft to resist communist subversion. The Argentines, he said, had met the threat effectively by identifying and ‘taking care of’ the subversives — their method, he opined, is the only effective way of meeting the challenge.” 

In the months following this meeting, Binns sent reports to the State Department on a rash of human rights abuses in Honduras. Binns considered the situation so dire that he recommended a cutoff of U.S. military assistance to the country. Not only did Washington turn a blind eye to the abuses Binns reported, but high-level officials tried to silence him.

In July 1981, Thomas Enders, the assistant secretary of state for inter-american affairs, summoned Binns to Washington. Enders asked Binns to stop using official channels to report human rights violations by the Honduran military because it could prejudice attitudes toward the administration’s policy in Central America. Binns refused to honor this request.

Upon returning to Tegucigalpa, Binns learned that the CIA station in Honduras had been instructed not to share information on human rights issues with the ambassador or other embassy staff. The ambassador, ostensibly the highest U.S. authority in the country, was cut out of the loop by a supposedly subordinate agency. Forced to rely on the press and other open sources for information, Binns continued reporting the military’s abuses and urging Washington to take action. 

In October 1981, Binns was called home early and replaced by John D. Negroponte, a career foreign service officer who embraced the Reagan administration’s vision for Central America. During his four-year tenure Negroponte oversaw a massive U.S. and Honduran military buildup. At the same time, despite contradictory press coverage, reports by local human rights groups, and multiple visits by the families of the disappeared to the U.S. embassy, Negroponte denied the existence of widespread human rights violations by Honduran security forces. 

In 1982, the Argentine advisers withdrew from Honduras and the CIA took over their training functions. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun in June 1995, Oscar Alvarez, a former Honduran special forces officer and Gen. Alvarez’s nephew, described the transition.

“The Argentines came in first, and they taught us how to disappear people,” Alvarez said. “The United States made them more efficient. The Americans ... brought the equipment. They gave the training in the United States, and they brought agents here to provide some training in Honduras. They said, ‘you need someone to tap phones, you need someone to transcribe the tapes, you need surveillance groups.’ They brought in special cameras that were inside thermoses. They taught interrogation techniques.”

In April 1983, based on the recommendations of a joint U.S.-Honduran military seminar, the Honduran Armed Forces shifted control of the Special Unit from FUSEP to a military intelligence division of the Armed Forces General Staff. According to a declassified CIA document, “the purpose of this change was to improve coordination and control, to make available greater personnel resources, and to integrate the INTEL [intelligence] production.” 

With this change, the Special Unit was renamed military intelligence Battalion 3-16. On Jan. 2, 1984, Alvarez Martínez signed national defense and public security ministry accords that formally created and assigned military personnel to Battalion 3-16. Many of Battalion 3-16’s personnel came from within FUSEP, and although the name changed, the same repressive tactics were applied, with even greater precision. 

A declassified U.S. Defense Department paper entitled "Honduran Intelligence Organization (U)" indicates that Battalion 3-16 had "established covert operational sites in major cities and [was] working closely with DNI and its network of agents and informants.”

According to the report: “The Counterintelligence (CI) Company is the most developed part of the MIB [Military Intelligence Battalion] and apparently enjoys the highest priority. The CI Company is not large, probably less than 50 members. The majority of the personnel working in or with the CI Company are DNI agents, [excised]. The primary mission of the CI Company is to develop intelligence, through covert means, concerning subversive and antigovernment groups, factions, or individuals who might pose a threat.”

Some Batallion 3-16 members received training in psychological operations and "human resource exploitation" techniques from CIA instructors, including practical exercises in which actual prisoners were questioned. A New York Times article alleging that U.S.-trained Honduran interrogators systematically tortured prisoners in their custody prompted scrutiny of this training in 1988.

The CIA claimed its trainers did not advocate physical torture, but former Battalion 3-16 interrogator Florencio Caballero told the Baltimore Sun that it was a method that Gen. Alvarez promoted. Indeed, the testimony of a number of Hondurans who were fortunate enough to survive the ordeal of clandestine detention confirms that Battalion 3-16 used brutal methods against its captives, including vicious beatings, electric shocks, dunking in barrels of water, and rape.

According to a declassified CIA document, in September 1987 the commander-in-chief of the Honduran Armed Forces, Gen. Humberto Regalado, ordered Battalion 3-16 dissolved; however, he created another counterintelligence unit that retained some of the battalion’s function and personnel.

In Honduras, “Battalion 3-16” has become a sort of shorthand for all death squad-like activity. Many Hondurans and international human rights activists generalize and attribute all kidnappings, disappearances and killings in Honduras in the 1980s to “Battalion 3-16” because it has gained more notoriety over the years.

In recent years, investigations have focused on the command and control responsibility of key Honduran military officers for human rights abuses that were committed by their subordinates. Prominent among them are the former heads of Battalion 3-16: Lt. Col. Luis Alonso Discua, Maj. Inocente Borjas Santos and Lt. Col. Luis Alonso Villatoro Villeda. Other military officers who are alleged rights violators include Alexander Hernández, Billy Joya Amendola, and Juan Evangelista López Grijalba. 

For more information 

Excerpts from “Selected Issues Relating to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980s.” U.S. CIA Office of the Inspector General. Aug. 27, 1997. (Published by the National Security Archive.) 

CIA Stipulations to Facts Regarding Honduran Military Activities and U.S. Intelligence in Honduras in the 1980s. Except from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of John D. Negroponte to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (S. Hrg. 107-781); Sept. 13, 2001.

“When a wave of torture and murder staggered a small U.S. ally, truth was a casualty.” (First of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 11, 1995. 

“Torturers’ confessions.” (Second of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 13, 1995. 

“A survivor tells her story.” (Third of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 15, 1995. 

“A carefully crafted deception.” (Fourth of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 18, 1995. 

“Open the Files: A Chance to Aid Demilitarization in Honduras.” Adam Isacson and Susan Peacock. Center for International Policy, 1997. 

“In Search of Hidden Truths,” an Interim Report on Declassification by the National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras. Leo Valladares Lanza and Susan Peacock. 

“Testifying to Torture.” James LeMoyne. The New York Times Magazine; June 5, 1988. 

“The CIA in Honduras.” Notes from a conference hosted by the Center for International Policy; May 7, 1997. 

Nomination of John Negroponte. Sen. Christopher Dodd. Congressional Record; Sept. 14, 2001. 

"The National Security Doctrine in Honduras: Analysis of the Fall of General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez." Leticia Salomón. In: "Honduras: Portrait of a Captive Nation"; Nancy Peckenham and Annie Street, eds. Praeger, 1985. 

“The United States in Honduras, 1980-91: An Ambassador’s Memoir.” Jack R. Binns. McFarland & Co., 2000.